Last week saw the NBA Trade Deadline come and ago and many (but not enough) teams make deals to add to their teams and try to make a push down the stretch run.
The most important move for any team that happened last week, however, didn’t involve a player. At least not a current one. It involved a living legend returning to the team he played for throughout his entire career. It involved a Hall of Famer turned extremely successful businessman coming back to use the skills gained in his post-basketball life to help the only home he knew during his basketball days.
Magic Johnson’s return to the Lakers was the single most important move that happened to any team last week.
It was a great story on so many levels. Beyond just being the return of the face of the Lakers greatest era (SHOWTIME) and one of the top five greatest NBA players ever to Los Angeles. In many ways it was a prodigal son returning to save his father’s failing empire.
Magic Johnson was like a son to the late Dr. Jerry Buss. Since the day he was drafted to the Lakers first overall in 1979 until Dr. Buss’ death in 2013, the late Lakers owner took the young Michigan State product under his wing and taught him everything he knew about life, women, the clubs of Los Angeles, fashion, crafting a public persona and especially about business. Dr. Buss started helping Magic plan his second career before his first one was getting off the ground.
Johnson said it best at the funeral for the man he called “a second father”: “Without Dr. Jerry Buss, there is no Magic.”
The two were linked from day one. Buss was the rookie owner who drafted Earvin Johnson with his first ever pick in the NBA draft. It’s hard not to think that the flashy, freewheeling Jerry Buss didn’t see something of himself in the on-court flashiness of the young man from Lansing. Buss saw Magic as the key ingredient in his plan to remake the Lakers from simply being a basketball team into a global phenomenon. None of that would have been possible without Johnson’s basketball wizardry as just as importantly without his off-court magnetism as well.
Showtime would not have been Showtime with the ageing, mercurial Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the face of it. It needed Magic and the rest in basketball history.
The death of Dr. Jerry Buss was followed by the demise of the Lakers on-court as well. I could never quite believe that it was a coincidence that two months after the death of the team’s beloved owner that Kobe Bryant, its biggest star since Magic and a man – who like Magic Johnson – had a very close bond with Dr. Buss, went down with a horrific achilles injury with two games left in the regular season.
I remember watching that game in the tiny bachelor apartment I was living in at the time. It was at the end of my first week back at work after sustaining a concussion (long story) and I was really looking forward to just chilling out and watching a great night of basketball with the highlight being the Lakers against the (then up-and-coming) Golden State Warriors. Then Mike D’Antoni just wouldn’t take an already obviously hurting Kobe out of the game. In a series of three plays, Kobe jammed his knee, then seemed to hurt his foot, before finally collapsing on the court after tearing his achilles tendon in a collision with Harrison Barnes.
I actually got a noise complaint from audibly cursing at my television. The whole game I was muttering to my TV “Take Kobe out. Take Kobe out. Take Kobe out.” D’Antoni stubbornly refused. This ultimately culminated in me screaming “FUUUUUUUCK!!!!!” at the top of my lungs when the Black Mamba crumpled into a pile on the hardwood. Somehow he still hit his free throws.
The first and only time I ever got a noise complaint.
To call Mike D’Antoni’s time as coach of the Lakers a disaster would be too kind.
What unfolded next was even worse.
While Dr. Jerry’s health was failing, he passed a lot of the basketball operations over to his son, Jim. Now it would have made a lot more sense to give that role to his basketball-loving daughter Jeannie, but she was already overseeing a lot of the Lakers business operations as well representing the franchise at the NBA Board of Governors.
As is all too common, Jim was not his father. He lacked his dad’s business acumen and basketball knowledge. He was also one to let his own personal insecurities get in the way of sound basketball decisions. This trait was toxic to the Lakers and was on display most wen Jim refused to bring back Phil Jackson to coach the team and instead hired Mike D’Antoni which directly lead to the Kobe injury.
Jackson already had a proven track record with the Lakers star players and never would have allowed Bryant to manage his own minutes to that extent.
Phil Jackson’s current and legacy-destroying tenure as President of the New York Knicks is also a direct result of his refusal to bring the Zen Master back into the Lakers fold so thanks for that one, Jimmy Boy.
It was also at Jim Buss’ insistence that the Lakers made a disastrous trade for Steve Nash in which they sent a 2013 first, 2013 second, 2014 second and a 2015 first. Assets that could have helped the Lakers reload were used on a guy who, while one of the best point guards ever to play the game, was only able to play 65 games over two seasons in Los Angeles due to injuries.
The Lakers also acquired Dwight Howard who bolted for Houston after one injury-plagued season in LA where he constantly clashed with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers made it crystal clear that Howard had no chance of being the man in LA while Bryant was still around.
As if to drive that point home, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak signed Kobe Bryant to two year extension worth$48.5 million despite the fact that he’d just torn his Achilles and there was no guarantee that he would ever be the same player that he was before the injury.
It was a gamble that not only didn’t really pay off given that after a 2013-14 campaign that only saw him appear in six games, he suited up for 35 and 66 games in the two years of the extension, looking little like the dominant Kobe of old. The last year of his contract was particularly difficult for the Lakers as it was really only Kobe’s farewell tour.
In that time, the team had acquired a lot of young talent due to being absolutely terrible in every season since Kobe’s injury. Going going 27-55 in 2013-14, 21-61 in 2014-15 and in Kobe’s final year last season, a franchise record 17-65. The result has been the ability to draft a lot of young talent like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr. Talent who should have been given time on the floor but instead were benched by then-coach Byron Scott (former Showtime Laker) for the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour.
I was a Kobe fan but hurting the development of young talent for an extended goodbye tour was not the right thing to do at that point. It was fun watching Kobe gun like the Mamba of old and put that 60 point game against Utah to close out his career, but it absolutely no favours to the Lakers young talent or to the franchise.
Contrast that with how Tim Duncan left the game and how the Spurs kept going with no distractions. I understand both teams are in different situations, but still the Lakers hit rock bottom as a result.
A rock bottom that allowed them to part ways with yet another coach in Byron Scott and replace him with the young, dynamic former Golden State Warriors assistant, and former Laker, Luke Walton as well as allowing them to draft Brandon Ingram second overall in the draft.
It’s also allowed them to clean house in upper management as Jim Buss made good on a promise that if the Lakers were not a Western Conference finalist by 2018 that he’d step down. Mitch Kupchak was more of a casualty of that regime than anything but he still went along with some questionable decisions like allowing young talents like Kent Bazemore to walk away in order save cap room for big name free agents that never came. Instead settling for signings like Lou Williams, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Not that these are bad players, but the Lakers were once the premiere destination for big name free agents.
They haven’t been that for a long time and won’t be for longer still. For the first time in my lifetime, the Lakers are in full on rebuild mode. Finally.
They could not have picked a better candidate to guide the Lakers rebirth than Magic Johnson.
Full disclosure, I’m a lifelong fan of Magic’s. I vividly remember being at my uncle’s place on Boxing Day when I was four years old and watching this smiling guy put on carve up the Houston Rockets defense with video game-like passing and his own share of scoring. I would later find out that the man I was watching was called “Magic Johnson” and he was getting revenge on a Rockets squad that had knocked his Lakers out of the play-offs the season before by putting up 30 points and 15 assists in a masterful effort.
But it was the smile that hooked me as a four year old boy. This guy was having fun. He loved what he did and it showed. It was that moment that I discovered basketball and found my favourite player. I’ve been a devoted fan of the game ever since.
That summer with a Lakers championship won over the hated Boston Celtics. I was over the moon.
Of course later I would come to learn that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were friends off the court as much as they were on-court rivals. That the competition between the two men literally saved the NBA from being a tape-delayed afterthought and set the stage for it to become the global powerhouse that it is today. It was then and remains probably the greatest rivalry in the history of all of sports. It had it all. Two players that were the opposite of each other in seemingly every way off the court, but were virtual mirror images of each other on it. Fierce competitors who mastered every facet of their of their game and could do it all. Quite literally.
The Magic-Bird feud and friendship exemplifies everything that is great about sports. It’s the most compelling rivalry I can think of. It’s probably why it’s spawned so many books, documentaries, a rumoured film, and even a Broadway musical. It’s the perfect story in so many ways. The story that saved basketball and gave its most compelling narrative.
Seriously in Magic’s case he won the NBA Championship in his rookie year by playing all five positions for the Lakers in the series winning game six due to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s ankle injury. In the process becoming the only rookie in NBA history to win the Finals MVP.
That was Magic he could do anything.
Five championships, 3 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, 12 time all-star and still the all-time playoff assists leader. Unquestionably the greatest and most versatile point guard of all time.
None of that really mattered growing up watching him. Because I knew he was the best. I knew that every time he came on TV that I was in for a treat. I celebrated when he and the Lakers won and cried when they lost.
Man did I cry. I hated the Bad Boy Pistons and never really did forgive Michael Jordan for the 1991 NBA Finals. Even though in my biased young brain I could understand that the torch had been passed, I never wanted to accept it. Still don’t to be honest.
Magic’s always going to be my guy.
I don’t think I ever cried harder in my childhood than I did on November 7, 1991. Probably one of the worst days of my young life when my sports hero announced that he had HIV and couldn’t play basketball anymore. Cut down in the prime of his life at 32 years old.
Back then, not much was known about HIV or AIDS. Let alone the differences between the two. In my young mind, Magic might as well have announced he was dead. A lot of people were convinced that he still would be and being only a child, I believed every single one of them.
But then he played in the 1992 All-Star game and followed it up with a spot on the 1992 US Olympic Dream Team. He even tried his hand at coaching the Lakers again before attempting a comeback one more time in the 1995-96 season.
Throughout all of this, Magic not only didn’t look sick but healthier than he ever had. He was filling out as you would expect any man that was nearing his 40s to do. He didn’t seem sick. He looked a bit slower and a bit rusty at times, but that was probably more to do with age and too much time off than it did with illness.
He’s still here.
He still looks as vibrant as ever with his thousand watt smile and all the charisma in the world.
Like everything else, he did what we all thought was impossible. He survived something that we all thought was a death sentence and he did it in a way that only he could. That’s Magic.
Magic Johnson didn’t survive his diagnosis, he’s thrived. Amassing a business empire with a net worth of $700 million. What’s more impressive is that he accomplished this by investing and helping to revitalize urban areas through a chain of movies and coffee shops that he opened in partnership with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. He’s since expanded his business empire to include insurance services, real estate services and mutual funds aiming to make it easier for people of colour to open business and pursue career opportunities.
In true Magic fashion, he got rich off assists. Not just rich, but recognized as a legitimate business guru.
He returns to the Lakers not just as one of the greatest players of all time, but also as someone with the acumen and know-how to make decisions that will ensure the team’s success both on the court and off of it as well. There are few people in the world who can boast the success that Magic has had as both a professional athlete and a business professional.
Still, Magic has his detractors. There are some who say that he’s out of touch with the current game and point to some tweets as the reason he shouldn’t be running the Lakers. To them I would ask, how much time do you think Magic Johnson has to tweet when he’s busy running a business empire, sports analyst, HIV activist, and one of the most beloved sports figures of all time?
Seriously, I’ve never interpreted Magic’s social media as anything other than a means of getting fans to engage with his brand and with each other. That’s why the statements are so simple and easily accessible to even the most basketball fan. He’s not tweeting as a Hall of Fame point guard, he’s tweeting as the Magic Johnson brand. That’s what so many sports reporters miss when they rip him for his social media.
I think the first few moves that’s he made as the Lakers president of basketball operations should silence the vast majority of his critics.
Trading Lou Williams to the Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first round pick in what looks to be a pretty loaded draft class was a savvy move. As was taking a flier on young guard Tyler Ennis who never really got a chance anywhere he played and should get some minutes on a young Lakers team. If it doesn’t work out, Ennis is on an expiring deal anyway. These were exactly the type of moves that an executive in charge of a rebuilding team should be making.
There’s also talk that super agent Rob Pelinka might be brought in to be Lakers general manager. It’s a move that many want to sneer at, but once again the kind of move that someone who has run a successful business empire would make. Magic understands how to run a basketball team from an on-court standpoint. He’s also been in management and can do contracts from that perspective. Pelinka brings with him intricate knowledge of the current CBA as well as a list of high profile clients including James Harden, Chris Bosh, Eric Gordon, Avery Bradley and a man that Magic has repeatedly stated that he wants to bring into the Lakers fold: Kobe Bryant.
Brandon Ingram has stated his intent to work out with Bryant which could only be a good thing for the Lakers rookie. Ingram already has the Black Mamba’s old locker and is going to be looked at to be a key piece of the Lakers future. Working with a proven winner and notoriously hard worker can only help Ingram’s development and there is no limit to the facets that Kobe can improve in the rookie’s game. It’s a match made in heaven.
Magic will do everything in his power to facilitate that relationship as well as starting a mentorship of his own with second year point guard D’Angelo Russell. Johnson has already publicly spoke about working with Russell and developing his leadership skills. There’s no doubt that D’Angelo Russell is a talented basketball player but working with the greatest point guard to ever play the game would certainly take him to heights we couldn’t have even foreseen. I’m very excited to see where that journey leads.
There is definitely the sense that the idea of family that Dr. Buss spoke about as it related to the Lakers is being restored by his former protege. That can bode well for not just the development of young players but the restoration of Los Angeles as a premier free agent destination. You can’t tell me that players with ties to LA like Paul George, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love aren’t paying very close attention to what Magic is doing and what direction the franchise is heading in. Who wouldn’t want a piece of restoring the Lakers to former glory.
I remember in the wake of the Donald Sterling fiasco, when the disgraced former Clippers owner was forced out after making racist remarks about Magic, how many people thought it would be poetic justice is Earvin Johnson purchased the Los Angeles Clippers. As much as that prospect seemed exciting and fitting at the time, something about it just didn’t seem right.
It wouldn’t feel right to see Magic with any other team. It truly is his legacy as much as it belongs to anyone with the last name Buss at this point. Having him take such a huge role with the team is right for the Lakers, for the NBA, for basketball and really for everyone. There is nobody on this planet who is more fitting to have that role.
I truly believe that the Lakers will be restored to glory by the prodigal son who has now returned home. Magic Johnson still represents everything great about the franchise.
For the Lakers, it’s the dawn of the a new era. Magic is back.